After I was born, my father and mother and I took the bus to Winnipeg every December for Christmas. Then, when I was four, my brother joined us and the four of us made this perilous journey. We went to my mother’s parents’ house. At first we took the street car down Osborne then struggled through the snow along Walker to the small bungalow with the glassed in front porch. They sold that house and, briefly, bought a brick house on Stafford. My grandparents stayed there for only a couple of years while they had a house built a short distance away on Fleet.
We came with a few gifts, never anything extravagant, and under the Christmas tree with its bright lights and brightly colored decorations, there were gifts for us. Usually, hand knitted sweaters, vests, for my grandmother was a talented knitter and seamstress, maybe toy for each of us. One Christmas when we made this journey over the frozen countryside, the Winnipeg weather was bitterly cold with a sharp wind. We had to stand in the open waiting for a streetcar and nothing my parents did could keep us warm. My father and mother held us close, tried to protect us from the wind but our hands and feet became so cold, we cried. When we got to our stop, we still had a distance to go over sidewalks piled high with drifts.
My mother said to her parents, we can’t do this again with two little kids. You’ve got to come to Gimli. And, dutiful parents that they were, they gave up the tradition of Christmas dinner at their home.
Christmas to us, was more about people than it was about gifts. Like all children we enjoyed getting gifts but it was the decorating of the house, the smell of the prepatory baking, the cookies and cakes and pies, and then, on Christmas Eve, my grandparents arriving on the bus. My brother and I were glued to the window, kneeling on the couch, looking into the darkness for our grandfather in his wool overcoat and my grandmother in her Persian lamb. “They’re here. They’re here,” we’d announce and rush to the door. There is no feeling so great as the arrival of someone whom you know loves you and whom you love in return.
On Christmas day there would be all the preparations. Sometimes, other relatives would also have arrived on Christmas Eve and since we lived in a very small house with three tiny bedrooms, we gave over the bedrooms to the adults and thought it a great adventure to be able to sleep on the living room floor.
The transition to Christmas at my parents’ house went smoothly, although, I expect that it wasn’t without some regret that my grandmother no longer set her table and planned the most important meal of the year.
In their final years, my grandparents moved in with my parents. During those years, I had moved away, taking jobs, going to graduate school so Christmas was too far away for winter travel. Eventually, I got a job in Victoria, British Columbia and, once again, Christmas shifted, now with my parents coming to Victoria, with my sister in law and her children joining us, with neighbours from next door filling out our table. My nephew moved to Victoria and my niece moved Abbotsford and, when she retired, my sister-in-law moved to Victoria. My parents came for twenty-six Christmases.
During those years, it was my turn to host our Christmas Eve of gift giving and to have Christmas dinner. But then that changed as marriages took place, family members had to divide their time between our Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner and those of their spouses. Times have changed again. My children have children. I’m in my seventies, just as my grandparents were and just as my parents were when our Christmases changed location. Christmas now is at my daughter’s house. She and her husband make the Christmas meal, set out the table, greet us at the door. My son and his wife and two children come from Bellingham to join us.
Four generations of Christmas, in Winnipeg, Gimli, Victoria and Victoria again, four homes. We suffer from the modern disease, move-itis, not out of frivolity but because modern life demands we move to where we can find work. I found work at the University of Victoria. My children came with me. My niece and nephew and sister-in-law followed.
I would have preferred to have stayed in the town where I grew up but there were few jobs there. All across Canada, young people were faced with a similar situation. Leave because there are so few jobs, get an education, then find you can’t return home because the jobs you are qualified for don’t exist in the town from which you came.
In 1957 I did not want to be a barber and fisherman like my father, I didn’t want to work in the fish processing plant. The airport that had provided so many jobs was beginning a long decline. Graduate school led me to Iowa, then Missouri and, finally, Victoria. I was one of the tens of thousands of the working class who were getting an education and moving away from rural Manitoba. We got good salaries, benefits, working conditions, interesting work but, at most, we could return home for our summer vacation. Christmas (and Thanksgiving and Easter and New Years) would be in a distant place.
We celebrated with neighbours, with John and Joan and Tina Economides in Iowa, with Al and Connie Fenske and their sons in Missouri, with our next door neighbours, the Kendricks, and their three daughters in Victoria and reveled in the connection of the Kendricks to our family, for Graham had worked with and knew my favorite uncle in the air force and Graham’s wife, Betty, came from Manitoba. We take what pleasures we can from circumstance. Gene and Agnes Kline and their family became part of our celebrations. Wherever we went we gathered around us people with whom it was a pleasure to share Christmas.
In Victoria, I had that most important of all things, a good job. Even an excellent job. In a good place because Victoria is regarded as the garden capital of Canada and the first flowers bloom in my garden in January.
However, there is a cost to the opportunity created by urban life, by the massive migration to cities and the abandoning of rural Canada. In the Globe and Mail, Elizabeth Renzetti says “Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”
When I grew up, I was surrounded by relatives, uncles and aunts, cousins of every description. They gave us a rich life. Loneliness hardly existed. No one sat alone at Christmas. The problem, if it was a problem, was how to fit everyone at the table, in the bedrooms, in our lives. My father visited relatives every Sunday, stopping briefly at the homes of his aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, all contained within one small town.
However, we are now scattered like seeds on a winter wind. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, the United States, distant foreign countries.
Now, with Christmas approaching, I rake the stiff, bronze leaves of the Garry Oaks. There is no winter here to speak of. In the mornings, there is sometimes a hard frost that is gone by early afternoon. The rhododendrons stay green all winter but as Christmas approaches, I my thoughts turn to Gimli, to the gravel road that runs north from town, a fragment of the original pioneer road on which my great grandparents traveled in the late 1800s. The ruts will be frozen solid, immovable until those early spring thaws. As I walk along it, snow will be drifting through the poplar bush, across the road, and I’ll hold out my tongue to catch a few flakes. The clouds will be grey, low hanging and the light will be weak. I’ll walk past snow covered hay bales, past old farm equipment, houses with lit windows even though it is still day. I’ll walk as far as the graveyard and climb over the chain link fence, pick my way through the headstones until I find my grandparents’ graves, my parents’, my brothers’. There they lie together in frozen ground. I’ll stand there in the fading light and think about those many Christmases, the laughter, the conversation, the warmth, the friendships, the love, my grandmother bending down to kiss me Merry Christmas, my grandfather picking me up so he could hold me tight. The memories will warm me in the fading light.